On July 5th, 1984, the San Paolo stadium in Naples is packed as it has never been. 80.000 paying spectators crowded the stands, and it’s not for a football match. Gathered despite the hellish heat, the city waits to greet a short Argentine football player who the president of Napoli Football Club bought from the Barcelona team. That player is not just a player, as the good ones are found in more or less every team; nor is it simply one of those great players acquired with the reopening of borders. No, he, the Argentine footballer short in stature, is Diego Armando Maradona. The atmosphere is messianic, everyone wants to see him, each of the spectators came to witness with their own eyes the player’s bodily existence and that it is not one of those miracles that Naples would need but never actually come.
There are those who wait for miracles from heaven as befits those who are already destined to be crowned king, get off the helicopter to vanish immediately afterwards like a Marian apparition, but things didn’t go that way. On the pitch, accredited photographers are waiting for nothing more than to use their cameras lenses’ to bring into focus him: they know very well from where the legend would shown up and like a firing squad they were waiting to unload entire rolls of film on Maradona’s face. Only one among many of them has an intuition that would will reward him the choice of placing himself outside the choir waiting in front of the clichéd Immaculate Apparition spot. Luciano Ferrara, a long-time photojournalist, is behind the myth’s back. And he, the short genius, seen from above appears to us the concentrate of a talent ready to spread on the new football ground.
There is no better photo that suggests an anthology of considerations. Maradona is alone like a lonely god and slowly, step by step, intertwines his destiny with that of a city. It emerges from the ground while even the most astute photographers will seem to witness the recurrance of the birth of a Greek god: the pace is slow, regal and the arms slowly spread out as if to receive the embrace that history gives to the predestined. But if we look closer, the photo, the whole photo point, is in a detail on which Roland Barthes would have written an entire essay about. Our attention is not distracted by the crowd of photographers or by the central space that divides their wings as if under the command of a Moses in a tracksuit.
No. The punctum, that microscopic vertigo that has the power to deliver eternal meaning to a photograph, is almost naturally contained in the exact centre of our expectations, at the point from which they will generate miracles that will pulverize the laws of physics and go above all reasons. We all look there, mesmerized, where the photograph prophetically focuses on: Maradona’s left foot. The right foot is firmly on the step, obediently under the rules of Maradona’s human posture, but the left foot floats suspended, light as something otherworldly and it’s what channels all our attention. Just a few more steps, only few more steps and then a welcome roar will greet the new king of Naples. Luciano Ferrara’s photography tells precisely this, the beginning of a great love between Maradona and Naples that will last well beyond seven years of militancy, because when you have loved so deeply nothing will be ever able to scratch that feeling. And the relationship between Maradona and Naples was interwoven with feelings. A man and a city recognized each other to define themselves as equals. The writer Domenico Rea in a joke gave us the key to understand how the relationship between the city and Maradona could only take place in Naples: “Diego Armando Maradona is a street urchin boy born by chance in Buenos Aires but Neapolitan in all respects”. As a man he embodied its strengths and weaknesses, excess and squander, generosity and swagger, whims and discipline but not on the pitch.
On the pitch Maradona is stripped of his human garment to move into a dimension where the laws of football, geometries and schemes in front of him seemed to be trinkets of a vernacular dimension: if the other players scored goals, he made masterpieces. And the city is grateful to him. There was something messianic in the relationship between him and Naples, as unrepeatable as the photo of Luciano Ferrara. The “king gordito”, the “pibe de oro” as he was called, was at the head of a kingdom whose election took place with a popular plebiscite and now, after years of setback, after decades of supremacy of the Nordic teams, the Napoli team and the whole city can aspire to redemption, to the eradication of a “cynical and cheating” destiny to be able to face future challenges as equals. And win them. And it actually won them: up to two league titles, an Italian Cup, an Italian Super Cup and a Uefa Cup. With all due respect, not even Saint Gennaro has succeeded in such a feat. He did. Maradona did. And that is the reason for being to the Neapolitans both a king and a lay saint, a messiah and a protector, a very pure jewel, something to finally be exhibited to neutralize years of humiliation. Forever. Even now that it is gone.
When Maradona arrived in Naples, more or less at the time of the Ferrara’s photo, Argentina and England were at war for the domination of the Falkland Islands (Maradona, from Argentina, would have called them Malvinas), an archipelago at the bottom of the world with more sheep than civilians. Territorial claims only a pretext that the two nations seem to share, for different reasons. Argentina was governed by a military junta that intended to rekindle populist sentiment in the nation; England instead wanted to regain possession of the, at that point, tarnished role of colonial power. The disparity of forces on the field seek the humiliation of Argentina. Human and material losses brought an entire nation to its knees. Two years after the tragic war, the fate of football makes a mockery of men and history and set the two national teams against each other. World Cup, Mexico, 1986. The quarter-finals saw Argentina and England against each other. The game was not just a simple game, it was the continuation of a war with other means, it was the appendix of the conflict, it was the last act of an Atlantic Tango that has not been concluded yet.
The Argentines didn’t just want to go through, they wanted to erase the humiliation they’ve suffered and so it was. And what happened was like following a script written directly in the Olympus of Football, up there where man’s imagination cannot reach. With a sense of mockery and geniality, as befits something that tends to go down in history. The goals that delivered the victory to Argentina are both scored by Diego Armando Maradona, the god to whom the other gods wrote the part. The first comes from afar, a cross, that little man jumps and with the help of the “mano de dios” mock the goalkeeper and an entire nation.
The second is known as “the goal of the century”, not just any goal. Maradona takes the ball, it’s in his half of the pitch. With a trick shot, one of those that “melt the blood in your veins”, he gets rid of two militiamen and runs. An unstoppable race, made of dribbling with a ball that loves him so much and it’s so grateful to be caressed by God’s left foot that is glued to him. It does not have any intention to go anywhere, the ball is there: under his command and will remain so until the end of the match, when no one is left to dribble Maradona so he throws it into the net. Argentina won that match and continued the journey until the final victory. England eventually packed their bags to return across the Channel.
Maradona was at his peak: the world, from Naples to Buenos Aires bowed to its king: revenge has been served. Naples has lent Argentina its most illustrious son. After that it wants him back. There was still a lot to do, a lot to redeem, a lot of goals to score. There was Naples in need Maradona as much as Maradona needed Naples. The two realities as indissolubly linked over time. But we, who deal with visual culture, always return to Luciano Ferrara’s photography, back to the very start of everything. That photograph already contains the premonitory signs of a great love. Love, yes, this was between Naples and Diego Armando Maradona.